Why do we want… part 2

So, I’ve been thinking about this… why the “American Dream” is owning the biggest house you can’t really afford…

Philosophers, Kant in particular, argue that human beings are the only inherently worthy things.  He says this because we assign value to other things, so a new Mercedes is generally worth more than my 5 year old Corolla (although, I may prefer the Corolla — I suspect that wouldn’t last long…).

So, I think it’s important to think about where those values come from… how do we get the idea that a big house in the ‘burbs with granite counter tops, hardwood floors and a whirlpool tub is a life goal?

Like many things, it seems to me that this particular value set is socially constructed.  By contrast, other values have a natural basis — for example, valuing a healthy body is prompted by the fact that being sick feels bad.  Valuing chocolate and sex are prompted because they feel good, etc..

One indication of a socially constructed value is that other cultures make opposite choices.  So, in Scandinavia it’s not a socially acceptable choice to build a McMansion (notice the term... hmmm...).  Instead, modest homes and living within your means are valued and conspicuous consumption is frowned upon.

Another indication of a socially constructed value is that it changes over time.  So, before WW II, most families lived in modest homes in or near the city center.  A combination of the GI bill, returning war vets and the interstate highway system — plus increased car ownership, prompted the creation of the suburbs.  So, folks went from living in modest homes to living in homes with yards, dens and a bedroom for every person.

Recently, it seems to me that the media and banking interests have pushed average Americans to want more home than they can afford.  It’s in the interests of the real estate and mortgage industries to entice people to take out mortgages they may not be able to afford, because then they can charge higher interest rates.  Then, banks bundled these less than desirable mortgages together, sold them several times and lead to a recession / depression.

The increased demand for housing (which was created by the real estate folks and others…) lead to a sharp increase in housing prices.  Of course, the real estate folks were paid by commission, so the higher the home price, the bigger the paycheck.  Also, the banks had more money to charge interest on.. so they weren’t complaining.

Finally, the concept of the “flip” created artificial demand and artificial values in homes — because the flipper needed to make money on the deal, so they did minimal improvements and then demanded higher prices.  Because mortgages were fairly easy to get (see above), the housing market was tight and folks who wanted to achieve the “American Dream” bought more than they could afford.

Sadly, the “American Dream” has turned into a nightmare for many people, as lost jobs and significantly decreased home values have turned what seemed to be a sound financial decision into the cause of their bankruptcy.

All of this was due to a powerful combination of a blurred distinction between need and want — and institutional shaping of wants for their own enrichment.

It seems to me that a recognition of the source of the desires is the first step in changing those desires.  Being manipulated into wanting something like a McMansion is less likely when it’s clear that the desire isn’t inherent to the person, but rather external.  As humans, we tend to resist manipulation when we recognize it — and this is one way we can begin to change things in ourselves.

Of course, I’m not the first to say we need to think about what we need — and I support Andy’s desire to live simply, in the woods…. although, I think some plumbing needs to be in the plans :).


From inside the McFood Factory

I say that I teach in the philosophy factory because I have large classes etc.. but, my first job was at McDonald’s.

As we watched Food Inc, I saw a lot of truth in what they said — I also saw some inaccuracies — at least from my perspective.

The Food Inc. argument about food…

  1. Fast food requires uniform products across the country.
  2. In order to produce uniform products, the process must be uniform.
  3. The best way to insure a uniform process is to buy from several large food manufacturers, who in turn buy from corporate farms.
  4. Fast food relies on food being purchased at below the cost of production.
  5. Lobbyists for the food industry have persuaded the government to subsidize food production, thus further concentrating power with multinational food corporations.
  6. Therefore, the development of fast food, starting in the 1950s, resulted in the current food system which has people disconnected from the source of their food and permits a small number of multi-national companies to control the food source (conclusion 1).
  7. Further, because fast food is produced below the cost of production, lower income people rely on it instead of more healthy food.
  8. Therefore, fast food contributes to the obesity epidemic and has significant hidden costs to society (conclusion 2)

Really, I have no disagreement with this argument — I think it’s true.  I also think that if the multinational corporations behaved themselves, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it as I do.  I would prefer a world in which food that is wholesome and nutritious is less expensive than non-nutritious processed food, but that isn’t the case.

Food Inc. on fast food workers

  1. The fast food industry has streamlined production in the kitchen in order to make more consistent food faster.
  2. Uniform products are necessary to streamline production (see above).
  3. Streamlined production is more similar to factory work than cooking in a home kitchen.
  4. Fast food workers themselves, because the process is uniform and easy to teach, are easily replaceable.
  5. Thus fast food companies can treat their workers poorly in terms of working conditions, training and wages (Conclusion).

Based on my experience at the Golden Breasts of America, this isn’t quite the case.  I agree that the process is streamlined and seems rather like working the line at a factory.

I also agree that it is the case that the training process at McDonalds is designed to accommodate a pretty low-skilled worker and it is relatively simple to teach someone how to complete the process, so replacing kitchen workers isn’t de facto difficult.

In fact, I learned how to work the grill from a store manager on crutches from a recent auto accident.  She verbally instructed me on how to work all the stations for breakfast AND lunch — of course, this was because she wanted me to be a manager for her and I was so good in the drive thru that I’d never been trained on grill…

My experience as a crew person, trainer and manager at McDonalds leads me to disagree with some of the observations made by Food Inc.

  1. It is in McDonald’s interest to have crew people flexible enough to work all stations within the restaurant.  It was a rare crew person who didn’t also know how to work the counter and drive thru, in addition to the grill.
  2. Working in the grill area wasn’t exactly an assembly line situation either.  It required a good deal of flexibility, creative thinking and general ninja skills to be effective at grill.
  3. Good workers are hard to find and it’s in McDonald’s interests to keep them.  Training takes time and energy, plus it’s inefficient as two people are doing the work one should be able to accomplish.  It’s also the case that McManagement are people too, who become attached to their crew people, thus they don’t want to treat them poorly.
  4. Therefore, it seems to be in line with corporate interest to treat workers fairly (not that they do — but, they should and could) as well as to train them in all areas of restaurant operations — thus, Food Inc. has some small part of their argument wrong.

This isn’t to say that I disagree with the gist of the movie, only that sometimes the movie reaches a bit far when it makes claims about the working conditions of fast food employees —

Then again, my experience is about 20 years old — they could simply wave a magic wand back there and make my burger for all I know.

There is no such thing as a dollar menu!

So today is part one of a two part assignment. Patty and I watched Food Inc. and we are going to recycle our thoughts and feelings on the matter. Part two will be what can we reasonably do about it.

I was affected but the portion of the film that showed agricultural companies advertising “now hiring” on billboards and newspapers along with pictures of stacks of American cash……….in Spanish and across the border.  Large meat manufacturing companies have  an agreement with the INS people to only deport 15 illegal workers per day in areas where the processing plants rely on workers. Non union workers. Poorly paid workers. Uninsured workers.

The problem is there are no more farms. There are only factories.  To have a respectable and knowledgeable, legal worker makes no more sense then treating your pig or cow with respect or even your customer. The idea started with Henry Ford and made it’s way into fast food in the 50’s and is now the dominating culture in food production. Profit and efficiency for the company and results for the owners are the only important factors.

It is not enough for large companies to produce the most inexpensive food and make the most profits, they would also have local and small producers put out of business by misinforming the consumer and tricky court room politics that keep labels on food dishonest and unclear.

Think that burger was just a buck?  That cow was fed corn that is subsidized by the government. That cow was processed along with thousands of other cows per hour that are for the most part covered  in poop. Because they eat corn instead of grass, they have a new and more dangerous form of E coli.   In case you don’t get it from the beef you will probably get it from the vegetables grown in the run off from the feed lot.

Since it’s so delicious, you will probably make a habit out of it and become desperately obese and diabetic.

So hows that Ronaldy Macdonaldi thing working for you now?

You would like to think big brother would be concerned for our safety with an agency named Food and Drug Administration except they apparently only hire professional who worked many years for the very companies they are supposed to regulate. All the way up to Judge Clarence Thomas who spent his time while not sexually harassing women  working as a lawyer for Monsanto.

So on to part two. How can I register my vote at the register? How can I keep myself informed and eat what my body needs instead of what it wants.

This should be fun!!!!!!

Pumpkin Pie..

Hubby wanted a pumpkin pie — he didn’t get one at Thanksgiving, nor did he get one at Christmas.  Andy is the pie master, so he obliged… here’s the process…

It’s a pumpkin pie, with the general outlines of the recipe from the back of the pumpkin can.  Note Grandma Rosie’s cookbook front and center.  Grandma Rosie taught Andy to make pie crusts.  I never met her, but my tummy and I adore her.

it’s really simple, about 1 1/2 c flour 3/4 cup of butter flavored Crisco, a pinch of salt… here it is before the blending.

and… after.  The key is to cut the shortening into pea sized lumps.

Then add enough ice water to make it come together.

Notice the liberal use of flour — when in doubt, more four is good.  Another one of Andy’s EFG tips — it’s better to work with dough that is too wet as opposed to too dry..

We don’t have a photo of the rolling out process.  Andy’s EFG tip there is to do as much of the work with your hands as you can, only using the rolling pin to finish the crust into a nice, thin, circle.

Here’s the pie crust in the pan.

Next, came the filling.  This is what Andy considers more like cooking than baking, so  his real EFG sensibilities came out — it was a bit of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves — about what looked right — added to the pumpkin, eggs and evaporated milk.

This is the pie, before Andy decided it looked a bit plain… and added the Klingon word for “Yummo” on top…

If  you squint just right, the design looks like one of the Olympic logos — I hope the IOC doesn’t nail us with a copyright infringement — good luck getting the evidence, I suspect the pie will be gone ASAP.

Today was more about Andy making a pie and me watching.  He even took most of the photos with his camera — The deal was that he’d bake and I’d blog — that works for me, for today.  I’ll continue the cooking lessons in the new year.

Why do we want?

I love the idea behind Andy’s simple living experiment.  I suspect that he’ll miss having an oven and stove — as well as a shower, but that’s just my prediction.  I also think that he doesn’t realize how far it is to a health club from the places he’s considering building his 100 square foot home — but that’s not my point here…

A conversation with Andy started me thinking about why many folks think owning a big house is achieving the American Dream?  I’m sure I don’t have the answers, but I’d like to think about it more —

First of all, I think that it’s preposterous to live in a house much bigger than the needs of your family.  Hubby and I did some house sitting in Omaha.  The two of us spent a significant amount of time in a 4,000 square foot home.  It was a lovely suburban home — built for a family.  The two of us spent nearly all of our time in two or three rooms — not even going into many of the others for weeks at a time.

This told me exactly how much room the two of us need — a livingroom/office, a bedroom and a kitchen.  We also did the usual homeowner stuff like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking etc… and concluded that we didn’t want to do that stuff.  It’s important to note that Hubby and I only have feline fur-children — so a big house in the suburbs doesn’t fit our family.

The house sitting experience prompted us to make a move — literally.  We moved from a larger apartment about 30 minutes from BNCC to a smaller (but nicer, more expensive… sigh) apartment less than 5 minutes from BNCC.  In order to do so, we significantly decreased the amount of furniture we had — and gave away a lot of books, clothes etc.  I don’t miss any of it.   When we moved we decreased our carbon footprint by nearly eliminating my commute and significantly decreasing our electricity use.  I don’t miss the commute — or the higher electric bills.

I think that there are powerful influences shaping our desires and making them seem more like needs than wants.  Whenever I see one of those “buy your first house” shows, the young couple is usually planning to “start a family”, and thus needs 5,000 square feet, a pool, granite counter tops and a whirlpool tub.  Their desires for those things seem like needs to them (they reject nice homes missing those things) and those impulses didn’t start when they walked in the door of the first home.

It seems to me that there are more complicated reasons for this — and horrific economic implications to the housing bubble… and all of that will wait for another post…

For now think about what you need to be comfortable, verses what you desire…. you may find that you’ve bought into an ideal that just doesn’t make sense…

Living with what we need, not what we want.

For a long time I have thought about doing an experiment with my life.

I have adopted a way of life where I simply need to consume less.  Am I happy with less because I’m a late bloomer capitalist with a number of poor choices and mistakes even late in life?   Or is my lifestyle just, and most folks could use some or part of it to improve their own lives?

So the idea goes like this: write a grant for studying a modern life living in a 100 square foot building. If no grant is available, use my own money to build the property and write a study via blog that folks could learn from.

This is not a heavily armored shack in the woods where I want to write my manifesto and plot my overthrow of the government. I’m indifferent towards modern society and apathetic towards our government. I believe strongly people should live a life they are comfortable with and since most folks think our system is pretty good………..more power to them.

I’m also a creature of leisure and comfort……….Though my cabin will be small and inexpensive it will have all of the comforts of home. The one exception will be an outdoor composting toilet with no running water. I feel those items are too expensive and make my experiment more permanent then I require.  I will join a fitness club that has showering facilities and make due with a water tank for cooking and small hygiene.

I feel most Americans’ homes are their largest and sometimes only investment. As we have seen recently, this is a bad idea. The home has become financial leverage instead of shelter. There are any number of reasons a person may not want to have a 30 year commitment. Lives change, work changes, relationships change. I can walk away from a $6000.00 cabin worst case. What would I do with a half a million dollar house at that point?

So what instead? Maybe I will decide not to chase my financial tail in circles and continue to just not sweat the small stuff including money. Or if I do end up with a more fiscally rewarding position, what could I accomplish without the burden of a gigantic payment and utility bill?

So you get the idea, now I would like some feedback……………………..let me know what you’re thinking!

A favorite Photo to share…

This is Slater, CO.  In my family “Slater” always refers to Slater, IA

Slater, Iowa is the home of Clan Ross… although, maybe more like the homeland or native soil — because no Rosses live in Slater anymore.  It’s a smallish town just off of I-35 between Ames and Des Moines.

Slater, CO is more of a post office than an actual town.  Hubby and I discovered it on a trip to Colorado a few summers ago.  It’s in the high desert of northern Colorado–

Slater Iowa, on the other hand, is the Lake Woebegon of my childhood… all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.  It’s the place of childhood memories of the 4th of July, celebrated with good food, fireworks and family.  It’s the place where we could walk to the park (down THE alley) all on our own — no parents.  It’s where my grandparents’ big old Victorian house was a place we were always welcome and where the huge dining room table had a piece of the base that all the grandchildren figured out rolled on its axis… My Aunt Reggie has the table now, so I need to go to Omaha to play with the table… sigh.

Sadly, I don’t have a photo of Slater, IA but it has a facebook page... — and it’s different now anyway… so this photo of Slater, CO will have to serve to remind me of the Slater, IA of my childhood…